Among the many things worth studying, one of the most interesting is what I call ‘philosophical folklore’. Folklore, of course, consists of micro-traditions passed down within communities as part of the ordinary ways of life of the people in those communities. We usually think of these micro-traditions as artistic, but much folklore is philosophical in character. Studying this kind of folklore, often fascinating in its own right, can be quite illuminating.
Of all subjects in philosophy, I think informal logic tends to provide the richest veins of philosophical folklore. Reasoning and evaluating reasoning are things everyone has to do. Formal logic tends to get too technical to be widespread. Informal logic, on the other hand, is almost purely folkloric in nature. Unsystematic and messy, it consists chiefly of rules of thumb, folk classifications, proverbs, slogans, and the like. While there are academic philosophers who attempt to give order to this melange, these attempts at organization are always partial, so many strands of it always escape. Further, appeals to some element or other of informal logic are widespread, not confined to academia, and can have important effects on the kinds of reasoning that are accepted in the broader community. Taking a common slogan like, “You can’t prove a negative,” we are faced immediately with a number of questions. In most of the obvious senses such a claim is false, so how did it come to be part of common wisdom? Does it owe anything to some long-forgotten context? Has it changed its meaning over time, and why? How does its use impact the kinds of argument people accept (or refuse to accept)? We can trace down the history of it and find, for instance, that “You can’t prove a negative” originally had a specific legal context, which is true of a large amount of our folklore about reasoning, and that in breaking free of its original context it has come to be used in very different ways.
Within the already fruitful field of informal logic, one of the most fruitful for the philosophical folklorist is the theory of informal fallacies. Labels for alleged fallacies spring up and spread like weeds, are widely used, and interact in fascinating and sometimes puzzling ways. One interesting element of philosophical folklore that I’ve seen bouncing around recently has been something called a ‘reification fallacy’. The ins and outs of this bit of folklore are quite complex, but if you bear with me a bit through the long story, I think it shows how interesting it can be to try to study classifications of fallacies as bits of folklore. If you’re not that patient, you can probably skip down to the last few paragraphs.
According to Wikipedia, that marvellous collecting basin of folklore, and especially philosophical folklore, it “is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity.” There is good reason to think, however, that there is no such thing as a reification fallacy in this sense. A genuine fallacy has to be a single, specific, stable, structurally identifiable form of misreasoning. Merely making a mistake somewhere does not of itself make one’s reasoning fallacious, and this is true of merely making a mistake in how the abstract relates to the concrete, which is, it should be pointed out, very contentious philosophical territory, anyway, one in which mistakes cannot easily be summarized under simple labels.
And when we look at supposed examples of reification, we regularly find that there is no substance to the charge of fallacy. There is clearly no single type of error that is classified by the label: we see this already in Wikipedia’s fairly typical vagueness about whether we are talking about ‘abstraction’, ‘abstract belief’, or ‘hypothetical construct’, which are none of the three the same. We see this even more clearly when (as with the Wikipedia article) people classify the ‘pathetic fallacy’ as an example of the ‘reification fallacy’, because there is no single kind of misreasoning classified by the pathetic fallacy, either. The ‘pathetic fallacy’ wasn’t even originally intended as an error of reasoning; the phrase was coined by Ruskin to describe a misplacement of feeling in poetry, as when we call a storm cruel or a flower gold because to a generic feeling with inadequate vocabulary they feel cruel or come across as vaguely golden. It is a problem that occurs when poetry is over-sentimentalized and lacks access to a sufficiently precise vocabulary. To the extent that what Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’ indicates is even an error, it is purely an error in taste, in which the false is taken as true due to overwrought poetic sensitivities; calling it a ‘fallacy’ was at best a figure of speech. From there it became generalized to apply to any sort of anthropomorphizing or personification—with regard to which ‘fallacy’ is even less appropriate. But even if we set that aside, the ‘pathetic fallacy’ taken so generally covers many different things—because personification and anthropomorphization are labels covering reason not by the structure or character of the reasoning but by its effect, and thus indicates any kind of reasoning that leads to a particular kind of result.
Similarly, any list of examples of this alleged fallacy always looks like it was composed by idiots who don’t understand basic figures of speech. Also from the Wikipedia article:
Nature provides empathy that we may have insight into the mind of others.
What makes this an instance of the ‘reification fallacy’? It clearly cannot be a fallacy at all, since it’s merely a claim, and you can’t have a fallacy unless you actually have an inference or process of reasoning. Another example from the Wikipedia article:
The notion that ideas are literally “infectious,” “predatory,” and “selfish” is a fallacious reification of the idea-as-organism metaphor….
Except that this is obviously false. You can never identify a fallacy except to the extent that you can identify how someone is reasoning. Without knowing how one gets from the idea-as-organism metaphor to the notion that ideas are literally infectious, predatory, or selfish, we have no way of determining whether the reasoning itself was fallacious or whether the reasoning was nonfallacious reasoning from false assumptions (assuming, of course, that the assumptions are false, which is itself a substantive thesis requiring some kind of supporting reasons). Of course, almost no one actually thinks that ideas are themselves literally selfish; when people talk this way, they are talking figuratively, even if they are not always careful about that fact. But even if they are not careful, mistaking figurative usage for literal is a very different thing from mistaking the abstract for the concrete.
Examples could be multiplied, but I won’t do so here. The history of this alleged fallacy is interesting in its own right. The earliest example I have found of it, and certainly the most important early influence on its history, is found in John Bernhard Stallo’s interesting 1881 work, The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics, which was widely read as part of the International Scientific Series, where it brushes up with editions of writings by Walter Bagehot, Herbert Spencer, W. Stanley Jevons, T. H. Huxley, Charles Darwin, and others. Stallo’s thesis was that much of physics consisted of taking abstract concepts like force, energy, matter, and space, and reifying them, treating them as real entities. It was his view that this treatment of the abstract as concrete was necessary for human cognition, but when, as physicists are wont to do, these useful fictions are taken as descriptions of reality, the resulting metaphysics or ontology was false and often absurd. With Stallo we have all three of the essential features of the alleged fallacy: he calls it reification, he calls it a fallacy, and he understands it as the mistaking of the abstract for the concrete. An unusual beginning for an alleged mistake in reasoning; if you just came across the fallacy in an essay, you would probably never suspect that it had its roots in an argument that almost all of physics committed the error.
Due to Stallo, the label gets used here and there over the next several decades, and gets new life breathed into it when people start identifying it with another fallacy-label that starts making the rounds, Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. Most modern uses of the label, however, trace back to the American logical positivist and legal philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen, who argued in Reason and Nature (first published in 1931 and revised in 1953) that many philosophical problems are due to “the disease of language” he calls the ‘fallacy of reification’, which consists of treating logical relations as if they were real entities capable of real actions. Cohen’s use almost certainly derives from Stallo. Stallo is only mentioned once in passing in Reason and Nature, but as a close reader of both Bertrand Russell and Ernst Mach, Cohen could hardly have been unfamiliar with the thesis of Stallo’s major work. Ernst Mach, in particular, was enthusiastic about Stallo, and regarded Stallo’s thesis as closely related to Mach’s own positivism.
The long association with positivism explains why the ‘reification fallacy’ label is often pinned on the philosophical position that is in some ways positivism’s opposite: Platonism. This is an example, I think, of how the uncritical acceptance of fallacy-labels can have a detrimental effect on serious thought. Platonists do not, in fact, treat Platonic entities (forms, or mathematical objects, or the like) as “concrete, real events or physical entities”; no Platonist of any kind treats Platonic entities as physical entities, and the only sense in which they are ‘concrete’ is that they have independent subsistence. But even if we set this aside, if Platonists are wrong it’s not because they are making some mis-step in inference; Platonic arguments that are not fallacious are not that difficult to construct. If Platonism goes wrong, it goes wrong because it makes mistaken assumptions; the wrongness of Platonism is a substantive wrongness that can only be identified by substantive arguments, not by simply slapping a label on it and claiming that there are structural faults in Platonic reasoning.
What’s particularly egregious about it is that the label purports to be an objective evaluation of reasoning, when it is actually an attempt to slide a substantive claim across the border without ever arguing for it. When applied to Platonism all the label is saying is that Platonism misdraws the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. This may be true, but this is just to say that Platonism is wrong for some reason, perhaps due to a mistaken assessment or assumption at some point; it is not to say that Platonists are necessarily engaging in any kind of misreasoning. Trying to refute Platonism by saying it commits the reification fallacy is the height of intellectual laziness: the label conveys no actual information about what is wrong with Platonism beyond the fact that it is Platonism and not some other philosophical position. Indeed, given the history of the label, it is implicitly an attack on Platonism for not being positivism, or, to be more exact, it is one particular positivist argument against Platonism wrapped up in a little package. Positivists should fight their own battles, however, and not try to make arguments for Platonism magically disappear by pinning a label to it. Reification can lead to serious philosophical mistakes, of course, but when it does, it needs to be shown to be so. Often it is simply a figure of speech. Often what is called ‘reification’ is actually a substantive thesis on the relation of the abstract to the concrete that needs to be addressed in its own right and not simply assumed to be an error.
One of the fundamental problems with much talk about fallacies is that people repeatedly show that they are unable to grasp the distinction between being mistaken in one’s position and being fallacious in one’s reasoning. One can use ‘fallacy’ to describe the former but this is a figure of speech. And if one fails to recognize its figurative status, one ends up labeling things as fallacious simply because one disagrees with them. This runs the whole point of calling things ‘fallacies’ into the ground; it becomes an impatient dismissal rather than a rational assessment. This is certainly the case with pseudo-fallacies like the ‘reification fallacy’, which seems to have arisen not from any special insight into reasoning, but from a mix of positivism and the fact that some people can’t understand basic English. Identifying such pseudo-fallacies is one of the useful things that can result from the study of philosophical folklore. Critical thinking consists largely of using ideas from informal logic; looking at the folklore that underlies the concepts we use when we try to think critically can make our thought better.
Of course, there is much more in philosophical folklore than just made-up fallacies. Common wisdom is not all bad, and the folk often know what they are doing. Looking into concepts like burden of proof, ad hominem, ‘all other things being equal’, and the like can uncover very important features of human reasoning. What’s more, it’s often quite fun. It’s just plain interesting to know that this ‘reification fallacy’ that often gets so facilely thrown at Platonism is a Trojan horse for positivism, or that it began with an attack on the worldview of physicists. I’ve often thought that there should be some sort of informal Philosophical Folklore Society to study this kind of thing. It’s open membership—no academic credentials necessary. What kinds of philosophical folklore have you discovered in the field, and what have you discovered about it?
An earlier version of this post was posted at Siris.